Do you hear what I read?: The sounds of writing

Stephanie Simek and Lisa Radon investigate the sound-art-language loop

By Graham W. Bell

Writing as action. Writing as conduit. Writing as circuit. Writing as art.

The literary and visual arts do not seemingly experience as much crossover as the performing and visual, for the most part. Why not? When is a sentence really an artwork, the paragraph a performance? Conceptual artists pioneered using words as evidence of ideas being formed/formulated, although they were more interested, perhaps, in the intangible, unreadable thought than the squiggles that form perceptual language. One writes about art and one reads about art. But how does one write as (visual) art?

Two recent performances at The White Box as part of Show and Tell approach the idea and action of writing as an art form inextricably linked to the literary, but feverishly straining to make the jump to performance and visual time-based art. Furthermore, as an added bonus, both also ask how writing is a vehicle for sound. More on that in a moment.

Stephanie Simek’s Minnie the Moocher Remix is a repetition of simple actions that, through technological means (and prowess), develop into a brilliant subtext: We as a species exist through language. Sure, there are times when one might fight or flee, but rarely is the mind blank when the body is in action. A couple days after seeing the performance, I was watching a crow hop along the train track and I could not help but try to think about what it was thinking. My first instinct was to think of the bird, talking to itself in English. While impossible, this is often the first way we interact with our non-human Earthlings. I talk to dogs like they are people. I know you do too.

One of Simek’s completed graphite circuits/Graham W. Bell

At the root of all of this is the idea that language binds everyone to each other in a way that reaches to the subconscious. This is not a new idea, but one worth mentioning over and over again. Language connects two people, two minds, two points, to each other in a way that facilitates the transfer of information and ideas. Writing is a more permanent venue where these connections can happen. What Simek’s performance does is to visualize and emphasize this word/circuit dichotomy. By literally drawing connections with graphite paste and her fingers, two points are linked electronically by cursive prose allowing the playback of sound, of words.

Playing on the tradition of call and response in popular music, Simek’s words/circuits stand in for Cab Calloway’s lead (hidee-hidee-hidee-ho). Upon writing out this lead, the circuit is complete and the response comes (slowly as the graphite paste dries and quietly) from a modified Walkman (hidee-hidee-hidee-ho). Writing and language are present here in three forms: as visual representation, as action, and as audio.

It is the last, the audio, that seems most provocative and leads me to talk about Lisa Radon’s performance and installation, Epi Hemera, two days prior at the same Show and Tell. When one thinks of a writing performance, one does not immediately think of sound. In fact, I was very much expecting silence. Having read a preview, I walked in with a few expectations.

Lisa Radon’s “Epi Hemera” at White Box/Graham W. Bell

Expecting a desk, I found a desk. Expecting a scroll, I found a scroll. Expecting silence, I instead found the scritch-scratch of white ink on paper as a preset text (from Radon’s ongoing commonplace book/repository: The Mine King) was transposed into nearly illegible, ghostly script.

The usually overlooked noise of writing, almost done away with by gel pens and the keyboard (with its own percussive voice), is brought to bear in Radon’s performance as she focuses on the action of writing: the process/action by which intangible ideas are spread or reproduced by manual means and internalized by the writer.

Lisa Radon’s handwritten scroll in progress./Graham W. Bell

The faint scratching is monotonous, not with valleys high and low, but a constant shuffle. The advancing paper rustles loudly and then it’s back to the faint auditory evidence of work being done; writing as a process of production.

Radon has been interested in writing in/as art for a while now. Her more recent projects include an essay for Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen’s TBA: 2011 performance (in which the artists edited her piece by covering over the words with other words on translucent vellum) and a piece titled Sentences on Sentences on Paragraphs on Paragraphs in Reading. Writing. at Gallery Homeland, in which words on top of words formed masses of nearly indecipherable text. Taking the action of writing as a way to commit words and information to memory, Radon draws comparisons to both learning through physical action (most of us have to take notes to really get through a lecture or concept) as well as the meditative, cultural preservation practiced by monks, copying ancient and important texts into new editions.

Radon Epi Hemera Audio

The auditory component of Epi Hemera draws comparison to Radon’s work COPIER: Horizons last year in which eight women hand copied Radon’s handwritten copy of an essay by Dick Higgins. Each writing surface was amplified in the same way as Radon’s in Epi Hemera.

Sound is a side effect of writing; not the primary purpose, but an evidence of words being written, of knowledge being spread, of memory being reinforced, of statements being committed to both a personal history and a physical document. Both Simek and Radon approach the action of writing as not simply a means to an end but a process to be investigated. The subtle scratch of the pen, the drawn circuit, the jotted note: all are an integral part of but separate from the information that so often obscures each element.

Editor’s note

Patrick Collier also wrote about Lisa Radon’s Epi Hemera for ArtsWatch.

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